The Ministers of Economic Withdrawal

Judgment day is coming. In two weeks we will know whether Sharon's government will survive. The struggle is over disengagement, but the budget is the hostage.

Judgment day is coming. In two weeks we will know whether Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government will survive. The struggle is over disengagement, but the budget is the hostage. Alongside it is the struggle over the Economic Arrangements Law, the results of which will determine whether we will enjoy increased competition in the economy or a withdrawal from the same.

Everyone is familiar with those annoyingly high taxes: VAT, purchase tax, betterment tax and capital gains tax. But these are only the visible ones, the ones that were instituted by law and that finance the workings of the government in the areas of security and social needs. It's the invisible taxes that finance monopolies and cartels, which hurt competition and bring down our standard of living.

One such invisible tax is the "non-competition tax." Let's take Bezek for example. Bezek used to be our exclusive provider of international calls. The moment the market opened up and two more international call companies were chosen, prices went down by 80 percent! That means, all these years we were paying Bezek an "international call tax."

That's exactly the way it was with cellular phones until two other companies came into the picture. Prices were sky-high, because we were paying Pelephone a "cellular tax."

Public transportation is the same story. Every time Egged lines were opened up to competition and private companies replaced the monopoly, the price paid by the bus-riding public went down 35 percent and service improved. That is, we were paying - and still are - an "Egged tax."

It's true for the ports as well. We all pay - in the form of increased costs of all products - the price for the inefficiency of the ports, the waste, the extraneous human resources and swollen salaries. That is what's known as the "port tax."

Competition versus monopolies is at the heart of the debate between the Labor ministers and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Binyamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer is the biggest cynic of them all. He invited the heads of the workers' committees of all the biggest monopolies in the country to the event to mark his taking up his ministerial position. He gave the workers' committee at Oil Refineries, Ltd. the right to veto splitting up the refineries. He told the Israel Electric Corporation he would re-evaluate the need for restructuring the company, and he's trying to stop reforms in the Mekorot water company. Fuad will see to it that we all keep right on paying a "gas tax," an "electricity tax" and a "water tax" so he can garner a few more votes from the major workers' committees in the Labor Central Committee.

Communications Minister Dalia Itzik is right up there with Fuad. She has already announced to the workers' committee of the Postal Authority that she needs to restudy the matter of quantity mail delivery, and at the same time, she is looking to replace the authority's director-general with her own man, who will make political appointments according to her wishes. Now she is preventing the transition to digital radio. Who needs a communications ministry, anyway? It's already been decided to close it down and move to a professional apolitical communications authority.

Housing Minister Isaac Herzog is in the thick of the competition for the heart of the central committee. That is how he managed to become a minister after less than two years in the Knesset. Herzog tried to postpone the all-important port reform, and said the electric company was the most efficient in the world and therefore should have no competition. Unbelievable. Will the Labor ministers allow pension and mutual funds to be taken away from the banks, or in this matter too will they stand with the workers' committees against the public?

The fate of the Labor ministers is decided in the central committee. That big archaic bunch of party wheeler-dealers and "formers": former mayors, Histadrut labor federation and workers' council hacks, and workers' committee members. The one thing they all have in common is their allegiance to the economic beliefs of yesteryear - massive government involvement in planning and centralized management, and strict protection of big monopolies that provide upgraded conditions for a few tens of thousands at the expense of the wider public, which continues to shell out for the "non-competition tax."